Interview with U.S. Senator Mark Udall

By Tanya Ishikawa

Mark Udall has been Colorado’s Senator since 2008, and previously served five terms as the U.S. Representative for Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District and one term in the Colorado State Legislature for the 13th District that included Longmont and parts of southern Boulder County. Udall serves on the Armed Services Committee, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Select Committee on Intelligence. He also chairs the National Parks Subcommittee and the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

Udall moved to Colorado’s Western Slope after graduating from college and worked at the Colorado Outward Bound School from 1975 to 1995. He is an avid mountaineer and has climbed or attempted some of the world’s most challenging peaks, including Mount Everest. He and his wife, attorney and conservationist Maggie Fox, live near Eldorado Springs in Boulder County.

Boulder Magazine contributor Tanya Ishikawa sat down with Sen. Udall in October 2013, to ask him about current issues at the federal government level and other issues critical to Boulder County residents.

Boulder Magazine: The October 2013 government shutdown seemed to be an unnecessary fiasco. What did it look like from the inside?  

Sen. Mark Udall: It looked from the inside like it looked from the outside. That is, it was a man-made, manufactured crisis that hurt our economy, hurt our standing in the world, and distracted us from what we really need to do. What we really need to do is create a new fiscal architecture for the country; pass an immigration-reform package so the labor markets have certainty; for the first time since 2007, put a [comprehensive] energy policy in place; and finally put a farm bill on the table so that those who feed us and provide us with fuel and fiber know what the rules of the road are. 

So back to the question: It didn’t have to happen. We ended up after 16 days right where we started, right where we should have been from the beginning, which was with a clean funding government package. We lifted the debt ceiling and there was really nothing else in the measure that passed the Senate. 

From the inside, I was proud of the Senate. We worked together. We had 80-some votes for the final package. And if the House had followed our lead we would have not had a shutdown, or if we would have had a shutdown for a day or two, we would have resolved it very quickly. 

Having said that, I’m leaning forward. I’m looking ahead to what we ought to be doing to move the country forward. Hopefully, this small extremist group in Washington will either come to the table constructively or butt out when we have to work together to move the country forward. You’re sent to Washington to help the country and to govern. You’re not sent to Washington to shut down the government. I think the public made it very clear that regardless of where they stand on the Affordable Care Act or any of the other proposals that this fringe group was pushing, the point was to make sure the government is operating. It was hard. 

One story: My daughter is working for the First Lady. She had an internship this fall in the scheduling office. She was a good sport about it all, but two-and-a-half weeks into the shutdown she said, “Dad, my internship is being affected. Up to a quarter of my time here in Washington may be consumed by the shutdown. This isn’t fair.” And I thought about the thousands of young people in Washington that are making a difference. 

I thought about the people in the state of Colorado who were being affected by it. And it was particularly onerous given the floods. Think about Estes Park; they are barely back on their feet. There were only two ways to get in and out of Estes, both of them longer than normal. The national park is the draw, and the national park shuts down. I was outraged and furious because for some in Washington this was an intellectual and ideological game. To the people I represent this was reality, and it was hurting them, and it was hurting our efforts to get our state back on its feet after these difficult floods.

Boulder Magazine: Were there any lessons learned during the process, the shutdown?  

Udall: The lesson learned is when people of good faith are willing to compromise, you can come up with a solution. More broadly, the lesson learned is that we don’t need any more government shutdowns. We need people to work together right now to rebuild our state, to emphasize and invest in our economy. The country is poised to really take off again after the terrible events of 2008 and ’09. We were in the Great Recession, and our focus in Washington ought to be on the economy and ensuring that any American, any Coloradan, who wants a job has an opportunity to win that job. 

Boulder Magazine: Do you see the obstruction happening again with budget negotiations needed before a Jan. 15 shutdown deadline? 

Udall: I’m rooting for the members of the House and the Senate who are on the budget conference committee. I know Patty Murray [D-Wash., the Budget Committee chair] has every intention of finding common ground. I do believe that whatever budget agreement is reached has to have some reforms to Medicare and Social Security. It has to continue to make some spending cuts, but on the domestic side, we’ve “given at the office” as a country. If we cut further we’re going to see the effects over the long term, because we won’t be building the roads and highways and broadband systems. We won’t be educating our young adults like we should, and we won’t be doing the research and development that creates new products and services that help our economy. Finally, we have to find some revenue. We could do that through tax reform, by lowering rates, broadening the base, getting rid of a lot of the loopholes. That would be the way forward. I do have concerns in the area of sequestration. That’s a blunt instrument that’s hurting our competitiveness. There are better ways to make spending cuts. 

To restate this, we need some more revenues. I’m more than happy to talk about Medicare and Social Security and finding ways to strengthen them while slowing their growth. But you can’t cut your way to prosperity. You can’t tax your way to prosperity. You’ve got to have some combination of revenue and spending cuts, and Republicans seem particularly stubborn about revenue. As Americans we want a lot of government services, and many, many of them are very legitimate and important, but you have to have the revenue to provide those services. 

Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] said that there’s no lesson in the second kick of a mule. I would be very surprised if the Republican Party tried to shut down the government again. I would be very surprised if the Republican Party tries to extort the country come Feb. 15 when it comes to the debt ceiling. We ought to pass the “McConnell Rule,” which [says] the President would be able to raise the debt ceiling, subject to Congress’s disapproval. I think it’s the right way forward. Then, in the future, Congresses couldn’t hold any President, whether Democrat or Republican, hostage to these techniques that were applied [leading up to the shutdown]. 

Can you imagine those of us who think that we ought to have immigration reform or universal background checks, for which there is 90-percent support—if we had said we are going to shut down the government unless we pass these measures through the Congress? That’s not how the Congress works. That’s not how the federal government historically governs. But this small group of extremists decided to hold the whole country hostage. 

It’s as if they said to a neighbor, “I want to burn your house down,” and your response is, “No, you can’t.” “Well, can I burn down the second floor?” “No, you can’t.” “Well, can we sit down and talk about what I can burn down?” “No, we can’t sit down and talk about what you can burn down.” Then the follow-up is, “Well, you won’t negotiate with me.” That was really what the approach was. The American people saw through it. The President stood his ground, and the Republicans and Democrats in the Senate saw through it and we worked together. So the Senate, I think, showed the country how to resolve this vexing challenge that we had.

Boulder Magazine: The September floods severely impacted Boulder County and much of the Front Range. How about you personally? 

Udall: I live at the mouth of Eldorado Canyon. It’s a wonderful part of Boulder County. Maggie and I feel really fortunate; our crawl space flooded and our yard is a new wetland, but we didn’t have the kind of damage that our neighbors had. We’ve been able to focus on being supportive of our neighbors. 

I was really pleased to lead the effort to ensure that we’ve now got $450 million to rebuild our highways, bridges and roads. That was one of the silver linings in the government shutdown. I was able to include that provision in the final agreement, so that we have certainty as Coloradans when it comes to the money that we need to rebuild our state. 

Also, I’ve been able to spend my time traveling northern Colorado. I’ve been inspired and motivated by the people of Jamestown, Lyons, Longmont and up Coal Creek Canyon. The stories are remarkable. 

I’m standing in Jamestown in a husband’s and wife’s living room and my head is only a foot from the ceiling because of all the sediment in his living room, but he said to me, “Hey, look at the kitchen—we’ve dug it out. We’re going to have it up and operating.” Then I walk down the street and meet another man. And I say, “What can I do for you?” He said, “You know, one thing you could do to help me: You could help get Left Hand Creek out of my living room. Can we move it to where it used to be?” But he had a smile and he was projecting a can-do attitude. I can’t tell you how amazing that’s been. 

Then, all the volunteers who have come in, not just from out of state, but from around the world. There was an Israeli team in Lyons that was there mucking and gutting homes, and they were excited to be here. They love Americans. They are proud to be visitors in our country. There’s a veterans group, Team Rubicon. Their motto is “Crossing the Rubicon.”  You saw what really is at the heart of the American spirit, which is volunteerism, community, picking ourselves up and moving forward. In the West, I like to say, we are rugged cooperators. We are individualists but we are rugged cooperators, and you saw this in big and small and medium-sized ways, day after day. 

The story that I heard that really sticks with me: The sound of the water and everything in it is what really scared people. It really sticks with people. In Jamestown, they said to Maggie, my wife, “We knew it was raining; that’s all it had been doing. But we thought, Why is it thundering all the time? Then we realized it was the boulders and the logs and the sediment, and the sound began to really be trying. We knew that sound meant our homes were being washed away. Our very way of life was being destroyed, and it was a blessing, when the waters receded, to not have to hear that sound.” My wife told me that because I couldn’t get home Thursday night [Sept. 12]. I flew in and I couldn’t even get to Eldorado Springs. 

Boulder Magazine: What help can your office provide in a disaster situation?  

Udall: Clearly, people should have registered with FEMA. That was job one. Then, we will work through my office and ask questions, move heaven and earth in every way we can to get people whatever they deserve. Obviously, now the really hard work starts. It will take months and years in some cases to rebuild. 

One of the reasons I kept my office open when the shutdown happened, and one of the reasons I was furious, was that all arms of the federal government that were part of the recovery process in many cases were shut down: the Natural Resources [formerly Soil] Conservation Service; the Farm Service Agency, which is a little-known agency but it provides all the loans to farmers after disasters; the SBA, [which] provides loans to businesses and in some cases individuals. We want to help the ag sector, which is a big part of our economy out east, rebuild and recover. We needed those agencies up and running. They were closed. I was furious about that. Again, the consequences of this were not important to this small group of people in Washington. It’s unconscionable.

Boulder Magazine: You’ve been an advocate for more transparency in government surveillance programs. What are the key issues?

Udall: There are a lot of them. I’m heartened by the intelligence communities’ effort to be more transparent. We have a lot more to do. I believe legislatively we will craft a new transparency regime. 

What I’m going to continue to push for, though, is to end the metadata collection program. We are collecting, every day, literally every American’s phone records—not the content, but the records themselves. It hasn’t been proven to me that that collection results in uniquely valuable intelligence. Some have suggested that that data has helped disrupt plots. It has not been proven to me, and I sit on the Intelligence Committee. It’s a passion of mine. 

The Fourth Amendment is in place because the King [of England] used his power to seize not only property and treasure and even your life but, almost more precious, your freedom. And the Founders knew that there would always be that tendency to want more, to collect more—even in that era, to surveil people. Freedom is about privacy; it’s about the right to be left alone. So I’m going to go to the ends of the earth to reform the ways in which we collect intelligence. There are many good people in the National Security Agency. Their culture, however, is to gather as much information as they can in the pursuit of keeping us safe, but we can have both. We can protect our privacy and be more secure. 

So specifically, I want to end the so-called 215 program. If you want to access people’s phone records you [should have to] get a warrant. Right now, the intelligence community has a general warrant. In other words, they can collect—and I’m overstating this slightly—whatever they want, whenever they want, all the time. And that’s not how the law was written. I’ve said to them, “You tell me that what you’re doing is successful, you tell me it works, you tell me it’s legal, but then you’ve kept it secret. Let’s, in the light of day, understand what you’re doing. You will also generate more support from the American public.” 

Boulder Magazine: Are there many other people who agree with you? 

Udall: I tell you, the general public is with me, and I’m building a broader coalition. I’m probably not in the majority in the Congress right now, but more of my colleagues have been listening and more of my colleagues have been asking me questions, and more of my colleagues, I think, are more willing to come at this with an open mind.

Boulder Magazine: How do you assess the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations? Are they a good thing?  

Udall: I’m going to let historians determine Edward Snowden’s place. I do think that he should come home, make his case. There’s an irony in the journey that he undertook. He went to China and now he’s in Russia—two countries that restrict speech, two countries that have more authoritarian systems. I will urge him again to come home. There are, of course, people in history who’ve shared these kinds of revelations, and again I think the American public can make their determination as well as the legal system. My focus is now on creating a more transparent system of intelligence collecting and, in the process, engaging the American public in these decisions as to what extent their personal information is gathered. 

Boulder Magazine: Fracking is a major issue in Boulder County and the U.S. Is this a priority for you and your colleagues on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee? 

Udall: It is. Energy in general is a priority of mine. I ran for the Congress in the first place because I believe that we needed an “all-of-the-above” energy regime with a focus on reducing carbon emissions and deploying more renewables. Look, you can use coal with CCS—carbon capture and sequestration. You can take advantage of the lower carbon footprint of natural gas if you handle fugitive emissions properly. 

There’s no one energy technology that’s the game changer. I wish there was, but they all have their advantages and they all have their technological challenges. In the case of natural gas, I’ve said, “Look, hydraulic fracturing can be done safely, but one well contaminated or one person made sick is one too many.” I’ve called on the industry to do more. I’ve called on the industry to be more transparent. I’ve called on the industry to work with regulators, to go the extra mile. We ought to have air-quality testing. We ought to make sure we have baseline water-quality tests that we then can use to monitor water quality on a real-time basis. I’ve said there are areas that shouldn’t be drilled. 

My conservation background motivates me in every way. The 11th commandment in my family is “Thou shalt protect the environment.” So there are places like parks and subdivisions and open space, and schoolyards, sensitive areas that shouldn’t be drilled. And what we see in the Front Range is that discussion fully under way, and I support the efforts to further strengthen the oversight and the management of production of natural gas. 

Having said that, natural gas has a lower carbon footprint. It’s partly why we see our carbon emissions dropping right now in the United States, but natural gas still is a fossil fuel, and at some point we have to do even more to reduce carbon emissions. Climate change is occurring. We’ve seen it here. Those who would deny it aren’t looking at the science. This is the very science that has led us to artificial knees, hybrid vehicles, smartphones, all the things that we relish and that have created higher quality of life. Why there’s a small group that is intent on denying the science of greenhouse-gas emissions is beyond me. 

But the good news is: In responding with lower-carbon technologies we create jobs, we do our part in protecting the environment, not just in reducing carbon pollution, but in reducing mercury and the other so-called criteria pollutants [six common pollutants including ozone, carbon monoxide and lead]. We also enhance our national security. The less dependent we are on fossil fuels from overseas, the stronger we are as a country.

By the way, the joint chiefs of staff of the intelligence community, in their annual assessments, said the biggest threats to our country and our way of life have included not only Iran getting its hands on a nuclear weapon, or China exerting its influence in the Pacific Rim in ways that create conflict, but our country’s fiscal situation. A broke country is a weak country; an insolvent country is in trouble. And they’ve also put climate change on that list. They are clear-eyed about this. If you look at what climate change will do to the quarter of the humans on the planet who live in coastal areas with rising sea levels—more hurricanes, more extreme weather events like we’ve had—the disruption that it causes creates political uncertainties, creates resource conflicts. Resource conflicts often lead to war and the use of force. So the Pentagon—by nature pragmatic, realistic, cautious—has made it clear that climate change is something that we can’t ignore. The point is that in responding, we create opportunity for ourselves as well as strengthen our country. This is a passion of mine. I know it’s a passion of people in Colorado. We are so well positioned when it comes to leading the energy revolution, because we have it all: coal, gas, renewables—lots of wind and sun—and NREL [National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden] itself, the great research laboratory. 

Boulder Magazine: How about the Keystone Pipeline? What are the issues there?

Udall: Let the science carry the day. I’ve supported this step process on the part of the State Department, the EPA and other agencies. Let’s see where that science and that data lead us. The debate has been a contentious one, but that’s really my position. Either way, we have to continue to convert as quickly as possible to a lower-carbon energy technology. 

Boulder Magazine: You’re now running for a second term in the Senate with a 2014 election. Given the climate in Washington, what motivates you to continue in politics? What will be your major platform issues?

Udall: I plan to run for re-election on my long record of achievements on behalf of the people of Colorado. Despite the partisan gridlock in Washington, I have worked across the aisle to strengthen our economy, support job creators in Colorado, pursue a balanced energy policy, fix our broken immigration system and protect our privacy. For example, I am proud of my work to pass a ski-areas jobs bill that allows our mountain communities to thrive year-round. I also have been honored to lead the fight against intrusive government surveillance programs that threaten our constitutional rights while doing little to keep us safe. Finally, I have fought to make Colorado whole following the recent devastating flooding and the numerous wildfires that have threatened entire communities throughout Colorado. From the air tankers I successfully secured to the $450 million in flood-recovery funds my work resulted in, I have been proud to help Colorado rebuild and to prepare for future natural disasters.

Boulder Magazine: What issues will your opponents use to attack you?

Udall: The Republican primary is going to sort itself out. I am not going to try to predict what my eventual opponent will say. My crystal ball is in the shop. But I do know I am prepared to run on my record and present a positive, common-sense vision for Colorado and our nation.

Boulder Magazine: What role will unrestricted campaign donations play in your election?

Udall: It’s too soon to say what role shadow organizations will play in Colorado in 2014, but clearly the U.S. Supreme Court’s misguided ruling in Citizens United has rewritten the rules of campaigning. I share the concerns of many Coloradans and plan to keep working to preserve the rights of average Coloradans to have their voices heard during our elections. That’s why I have fought to bring transparency to the secretive political organizations created after the Citizens United decision. It’s also why I have put forward a common-sense plan to reform the presidential campaign public-financing system, reinforce the role of small donors in American politics, and allow candidates to effectively campaign in the post-Citizens United world.

Boulder Magazine: Three final questions for you, with an eye toward the future: Are you optimistic about the future for Colorado? Are you optimistic about the future for the U.S.A.? Are you optimistic about the future of the Earth?

Udall: I’m an eternal optimist when it comes to our future. I think there’s something about us as Westerners that breeds that kind of attitude. The pioneers that settled the West knew that tackling rugged terrain and blistering winters required them to work together.  The Earth faces enormous challenges from things like climate change, and I will continue to work hard with elected leaders at all levels to ensure we are finding ways to reduce global warming. Despite differences among elected leaders, we have to find ways to work together to address shared challenges. I try to bring that spirit of strength and independence to all of my work in the Senate because, with Coloradans standing beside me, I know there’s no limit to what we can do together.

Tanya Ishikawa contributes business, political and cultural stories to a wide variety of publications and websites. She is also the mother of an 8-year-old; a Federal Heights city council member; and an Open Media Foundation board member.

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